It was Jacques Barzun, a Frenchman and a great cultural historian who was provost at Columbia for many years, who once wrote “Anyone who wishes to understand America, must first understand baseball.” I always thought it was Marianne Moore, Brooklyn poet and lifelong Dodgers fan, who said it, providing us with a more romantic and comforting piece of legend, but either way it’s an interesting and provocative statement.

As some of you may know, I have had a lifelong love affair with baseball, though the current state of the game has been testing my fidelity to my lover. More often than not I find myself reading the sports section to escape the depressing headlines rather than to follow the adventures of my once beloved St. Louis Cardinals.

I also like podcasts, and one of my favorites is hosted by Derrick Goold of the St. Louis Post dispatch. His writing and his podcasts at almost every stroke transcend mere sports writing and instead use baseball as the fodder with which to explore more complex, interesting. and fun topics. He is also a strong advocate of the Oxford comma.

This week he posed the following question to fellow St. Louis writers: Who are the defining five? What five players captured their fascination, their relationship to , and their fondness for the history of baseball. I realized a few minutes into the show that this set up could be applied to any number of interesting thought experiments, so I wanted to start with this one: who are five theatrical figures who were responsible for capturing my fascination, my relationship with and my fondness for the theater? I cheated a bit. I came up with six and I couldn’t bear cutting one anyone off the list so here they are:

  1. Kaufman and Hart. They were what used to call “Men of the Theatre.” They wrote plays together, they directed separately,hnn and even took to occasionally acting in them. At one point there were three road companies out of their play the Man Who Came to Dinner. Kaufman starred in one, Hart in the second, and Alexander Woollcott, upon whose  life the play was based, played himself in the third company. I first discovered Kaufman and Hart in a high school American literature class. We had been through a heavy slog with the teacher’s choice of plays thus far,  but the moment she placed You Can’t Take It With You in my hands my world lit up. It was funny. It was very different, and with the joyous spirit of nonconformity at its center it breathed life into my dull Midwestern surroundings.
  2. Shakespeare, or actually Richard Burton, whose incredible masculinity, rich voice, and headline affair with Elizabeth Taylor made Shakespeare cool, and made us all want to forsake the American theater and  acquire British accents
  3. This is a two for one: Bobby Lewis and Harold Clurman. Lewis was the teacher of my teacher Bob Hobbs and through him Lewis’s work instilled in me the idea that acting was a definable craft while cautioning us that his teaching was not the way but a way  to get one started. Along with Lewis, Clurman had been one of the founders of the Group Theater and his book the Fervent Years was the inspiration and guiding light for Terry and Barbara and me as we went about creating Irondale.
  4. Viola Spolin. I’ve always been a research nut. When I was cast in my first play in high school, I immediately went to the school library and checked out a book called how to build a character, by some guy named Stanislavski.  when I segued from acting to directing, I went to the library and checked out On Directing by Herold Clurman. Clurman’s book was a Joy Of Cooking tool for a young director. It got me through some tough scrapes. He talked about the importance of utilizing improvisation as a rehearsal tool. Since I didn’t know anything about improvisation it was back to the library. This is where I first became acquainted with the theater game work of Spolin. Viola knew everything and then some. She began as a social worker in Chicago mothered Paul Sills, the founder of Second City and discovered a way of working that valued intuition and process over all other techniques.” That which you do not know, has not yet emerged.” “You don’t think of a thought, you just have it.”
  5. Peter Brook, who reinvented the whole notion of theater with his book the Empty Space, and at the age of 95 is still way ahead of all of us.
  6. Bertolt Brecht. (I told you there was going to be a bit of a cheat along the way. So here I am rounding this up with number 6). I went to my favorite teacher in high school, who had by the way directed me in my first play which happened to be You Can Take It With You which induced in me an addiction from which I have never recovered, and asked him what should I read. He gave me a copy of the Eric Bentley translation of what he called the Good Woman Of Szechuan. I didn’t understand the play at all. But then Brook said that Brecht was the greatest theater force of the 20th century, so I had to go back and take another look.  Barbara agreed with Brook. She even had a biography of Brecht. We finished the first season at  Irondale with Barbara playing the role of Shen Te in the Good Woman. Thus beginning a long tradition of Brecht as Irondale’s company playwright.

 

These people and what they accomplished have demanded that I learn more about the “game” they were playing in order that I could better understand what they were doing. I have had to learn their games better in order to better explain them to the people that I work with and the audiences that I wish to reach. Derrick Goold said something much like this about baseball writing. I’ve learned how to watch a play or a performance  these masters have created or to carefully read the words that they have set down differently-to learn how they constructed and dictated the moment to moment structure and strategies of the superb game that they always managed to play.

Oh, and by the way my baseball defining 5: Stan Musial, Jackie Robinson, Mickey Mantle, Bill James and Whitey Herzog. Ask me about them sometimes. They all know a lot about the theatre.

Have fun with your own Defining 5’s. They’re what’s on my mind today.

 

Jim Niesen

 

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